Values integrity: Leadership means keeping it real

One of the central distinctions in the US presidential election that I’ve seen is that of the candidate’s integrity with their stated and perceived virtues. Barack Obama has led an exemplary campaign, and unbiased observers (of which I cannot really claim to be) would notice that he has maintained a consistent focus on several distinct NEW values which have captured the imagination of millions.

Barack redefines what it is to be a leader, by creating a new framing of venerable, even old-school values:

  • Solidarity
  • Doing good, serving everyone in the country
  • Asking people to give their fair share

And new values, or at least expressed wholly anew:

  • We can transcend partisanship
  • Hope = faith in ourselves
  • Responsibility: We must grow up and handle the problems we have created as a nation.

But he also “holds” integrity by making declarations that are not yet proven “true” in our experience. He claims we can rise above partisanship when we haven’t yet, and may still fail. We have not yet taken responsibility. But Obama is creating a place in language where these assertions are true as they are spoken. The leadership is not in saying these things, it is in being accountable for making sure they happen.

I was reminded of the extraordinary Obama campaign when I saw the Harvard Business article on how an inauthentic expression of values engenders cynicism and values depletion within organizations.

Corporate Values and Employee Cynicism

As we conducted our interviews with employees, there was a recurring theme: values. Many employees told us that the best thing about the company was its values. But employees also said that the worst thing about the company was that the CEO had been, from their point of view, breaching the values that he himself had developed for the company. Unwittingly, even a committed leader may appear to followers to be violating principles he or she has espoused.

Where values conflicts emerged they were often a matter of difference in interpretation between the executive and staff employees.

A key factor that set the stage for employees seeing the CEO as hypocritical was that employees interpreted the values somewhat differently than the CEO did. Specifically, they interpreted the values a little more broadly than the CEO intended; we call this “value expansion.” For example, the CEO articulated values of unpretentiousness and a sense of community. Employees interpreted his statements as implying a core value of equality—an absence of hierarchy.

In my research I’ve noticed this but considered other interpretations as well. Other factors contributing to cyncism include the common perception that corporate values (espoused, “plaque on the wall”) were only aspirational and not realities of behavior in the organizational culture. Organizational values “as practiced” were often much different than  those defined by corporate HR and their consultants. I’m sure organizations like Enron and Fannie Mae had posted inspiring values such as teamwork and “innovation.” I think an interesting organizational research study might be done on the values behavioral gap between values espoused and enacted in firms that recently failed or were bailed. (Does the size of the difference matter?)

But let’s consider a humane aspect for a minute. I find it interetsing that people’s personalities (e.g. Myers-Briggs profile) go through a “reverse polarity” under stress. Organizations under stress (aren’t they all right now?) may also reverse their expression and performance of values. People may expect this to be temporary, but new styles (and especially habits learned under survival conditions) have a way of sticking around. The authors proposed solutions?

  • Explicitly acknowledge the tension among multiple aims
  • Clarify the values’ appropriate meanings, but not restrict their scope excessively.
  • Proactively “give sense” around actions that could be seen as values-threatening
  • Create a sense of psychological safety.

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